I had written Friday's post about Obama and JFK earlier in the week, and I am busily revising a book on a completely different topic (baseball), but the Brexit vote and the extraordinary reaction to it call for some comment. I am reading the newspapers every morning with increasing interest. I have been doing these posts for almost 12 years now--and the world is finally catching on. No, it wasn't because they discovered me--it was because of the unmistakable evidence before their eyes. No one, now, can deny that the western world is in a political crisis comparable to those of 1789-1815, 1859-71, and 1929-45. It is, and will almost surely remain, less violent, but it may be just as consequential. And like the first of those crises, it comes, more than anything else, from a complete breakdown of understanding between the elites and the masses of the people.
I have read a good deal about the Brexit vote but I have not seen one point made specifically as yet. (It must have been make in the British press, but I haven't seen it.) Asked to decide their nation's future, a small majority of the electorate voted against the position taken by both of their leading political parties. Britain was probably at a similar point in both the 18th- and 19th-century crises, but the established order found solutions. In the 1790s, the solution was the strict repression of the popular movement for democracy. In 1867 it was the enfranchisement of a much broader swath of the population. This time, the solution remains to be found. And the result may well be the breakup of the United Kingdom, after Scotland declares its independence and joins the EU. For international soccer fans, the status of the British Isles, who have fielded four different national teams since international soccer was organized in the last century, has always seemed a bit anomalous. It won't be in a few more years. Before Thursday, the British political system seemed to be in relatively robust shape. Alone among the major nations, the British actually had a government dominated by one party, the Tories. Now their leader is on the way out and the whole future of British politics could not be ore uncertain.
I spent the last week in May bicycling around southern Italy with 13 well-educated Brits, who were divided on Brexit. Based upon what they said, Muslim immigration was not an important issue in the vote. The great mistake which may wreck the EU was its rapid expansion into Eastern Europe, which remains, as it has been for centuries, a completely different world. (That was one of the themes of my first book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War.) Several of my traveling companions complained that eastern Europeans could not only find their way to Britain whenever they chose, but could immediately secure the benefits of the British welfare state under EU law. The expansion of both the EU and the eurozone as far as Greece has of course had dreadful consequences, and they will get worse now. The political divisions between Hungary and Poland on the one hand, and France and Germany on the other, are probably comparable to those between Texas and California. Bureaucrats in Brussels simply can't hold such disparate communities together indefinitely.
The European and American elites--still led, like our own, by the postwar generation to which I belong--have fallen victim to a classic illusion. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and David Cameron and Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel believe that because the system has been so good for them, it must be good for everyone else. But even in Europe, where the state provides education and health care to all, more and more people are losing faith. In the US they have lost it. Together the Trump and Sanders vote is probably greater than the Clinton vote. It does not seem likely that Trump can unite it, but the New York Times reports today that even Hillary Clinton realizes that Brexit is very bad news for a campaign like hers, based fundamentally on an embrace of the status quo.
The decline of the European union is, in a sense, predictable. It grew up in the 1950s and 1960s as a response to a potential rebirth of nationalism, which had destroyed Europe in the first half of the century, and a defense against the Communist threat. Now the generation that experienced Fascism and Nazism has almost completely died off, and the Communist threat no longer exists. Because European birth rates fell so low, immigration was the only way to keep European economies going--and that has created new social and political problems. And faced with an economic crisis comparable in some ways to that of the great depression, the European elite has paid virtually no attention to the huge rise in permanent unemployment, and opted for a disastrous policy of austerity. A loosening of the bonds among the major European states might actually help find a way out of the mess, if one or more major nations adopts new policies that work. Apparently the European bureaucracy isn't capable of a change of course.
Are our own politics in an equally great state of crisis? The answer, it seems to me, must be yes. One whole party, the Republicans,has totally lost touch with its voters. The Democratic Party is deeply divided within itself and its appeal to independents is, at this point most uncertain. Congress remains in thrall to special interests and cannot follow the will of the people. The majority of the population opposes increased integration and new trade deals, which the party establishments favor. Inequality is increasing with staggering consequences in our leading metropolitan areas, and our generation gap seems to be as wide as Britain's.
Such crises, of course, are opportunities as well, and in the past they have produced Washington Hamilton and Jefferson; Abraham Lincoln; FDR and the leading figures of his administration; Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. They have also produced Napoleon, Hitler, and Lenin. Yet in the western world there is not a single leader of remotely comparable stature on the horizon. Here I think the educational system and my own profession of history must take a great deal of the blame. Historians no longer teach much about nations or governments, about how they have built societies and held them together in the past, and how they have established links with the population at large. Instead they are focused on the lives and (purported) feelings of the marginalized groups within society. That focus was one of the luxuries of spending one's life within a relative stable world--the world that is now passing before our eyes. Almost 25 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe recognized that we could not stay forever on the path that we were on, and that a great crisis was coming. Their books found almost no resonance in the media or academia, but they attracted a few dozen acolytes within the general population who have come to know each other well on line. None of this has surprised any of us, although the sudden acceleration of the crisis is a shock. But we have had to face that the market for truth, in the world my generation has created, is a specialty market. I would have loved to have had more impact on how the historical profession sees the world,. but I could not overcome the tide of history. Perhaps in another twenty years more people will discover the keys to understanding how things fell apart, and how--for better or for worse--something new was put in their place.